The opportunity to spend time in nature is a wonderful thing. It’s even more fun if you’re properly prepared. Whether you’re planning to go backpacking or mountaineering for weeks in the deep forest of a mountain range, or car or RV camping at a frontcountry campground, you’ll need the right camping tools and equipment.
Bring with you the means to live self-sufficiently in the wilderness, and you’ll be self-empowered with the full freedom to live well in the outdoors. Out in the wilderness, your experience and even your life can depend on having everything you need with you. So, use this comprehensive list of what you’ll need as your guide to packing for your camping adventure.
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Be comfortable at night, so that you can get the quality of rest you need in order to energize yourself and fully enjoy your days in the wilderness. Here is the shelter you should bring.
There are many configurations of camping tents for every single type of use and number of occupants. Dome tents have taken over as the preferred model. They’re convenient to assemble. They remain standing in rough weather. They provide more interior room. They’re lightweight. Cabin tents (sometimes called V tents) are heavier, harder to assemble, and are at greater risk of collapsing in moderate winds. They’re also typically unsealed at the bottom, so keeping critters and rain out is a serious problem.
In a cabin tent that sleeps two, you won’t have room for your pets, gear, and non-food supplies. In a dome tent, there’s abundant spare room on the sides for storage. Bring tent stakes for a cabin tent. Bring an oversized footprint (tarp) for a cabin tent. Bring one for a dome tent if you’ll be camping in a dusty or rainy area.
Rain and Sun Shield
Campers may want to bring a dining fly to shield their dining or hang-out space from sun and rain. Desert backpackers may just bring a small piece of ultra-lightweight tent fabric. Car campers can select models ranging from a little tarp secured with rope all the way up to deluxe screened-in versions, enclosed with zippers and their own floors, to keep insects and critters out, and even double as a tent for fair-weather sleeping. (Tip: Campgrounds often have policies against tying ropes on trees.)
If you’re backpacking, a sleeping bag is the way to go. Cold-weather hikers should consider a mummy-style sleeping bag for optimum efficiency in heating with body heat. Get one that can be stuffed into a small carrying bag that fits into your pack, instead of lugging a whole camping cot under your pack—unless, of course, you have a more light-weight form of one of the different camping cots. Get one that’s temperature-rated for the climate you’re in. You may prefer to add a sleep pad for added comfort and as a moisture barrier for non-water-proof sleeping bags. Pads made of foam and air pockets are less bulky than all-foam pads and don’t require inflation like an all-air pad does.
For drive-up camping in national parks, splurge on a blow-up mattress and add pillows plus a few blankets. Maybe even go all in with bedsheets too, for a deluxe home-away-from-home experience.
A hammock is more than a novelty option. A modern-covered, waterproof hammock is an excellent choice for comfort, and for saving space and weight. However, in areas without trees, or in campgrounds that don’t allow tying ropes to trees, you can find yourself without a place to hang your hammock. So, think ahead about the kind of environment you’ll be sleeping in before you pack your hammock for a particular camping trip.
Bringing camping tables and camping chairs may seem counter-intuitive to some seasoned backpackers and lovers of the outback who are more accustomed to lean-to shelters. However, lightweight polyester-strapped folding chairs, or the more recently designed heavy-duty camping chairs, are a very practical solution for car campers who want to optimize their comfort fishing along riverbanks or just hanging out in nature kicked back by the campfire.
Being comfortable in your clothes can be the difference between enjoying yourself and living in a constant state of distraction with wishing you had made better decisions during packing.
Depending on your camping/hiking/biking/boating destination, bring some long pants and short ones. Whichever is appropriate, make sure they’re comfortable. Lightweight kakis are versatile, breathable, easily hand-washable, fast drying, and look great without ironing. Deep pockets are great in lieu of a day pack for fishing tackle, trail maps, phones, snacks, and much more, especially if you’re venturing only very short distances from your campsite and don’t mind carrying your camping water bottle.
Pack a t-shirt per day, plus at least one spare for the trip. Take a medium-weight long-sleeved shirt for cooler mornings and evenings. Button flap pockets can be used for carrying medications, ID, etc.
Wear comfortable athletic shoes, but bring some favorite, durable sandals too. Take boating shoes, if you’re going to be leisure boating or fishing by boat. Take a pair of old athletic court shoes or swim shoes (water shoes) for creek or river swimming in rocky-bottomed areas. Get some proper hiking boots and hiking sandals, if you’re going to be hitting the trails.
If you’ll be in a changeable weather environment, you may want to invest in a cozy, warm, fiber-filled jacket with a waterproof exterior and removable hood, lining, and sleeves. Removing the lining gives you a light windbreaker and rain jacket. Make sure the lining is designed to also be used alone as a warm vest. The whole jacket should be designed to squeeze into a bag that is about the volume of a grapefruit to take up minimal space in your backpack. This type of jacket is among the world’s most versatile clothing items. The other option is to bring whatever kind of regular protective jacket you’ll need most (light or heavy), plus an adequate raincoat.
Daily hygiene maintenance needs to happen for both health maintenance and self confidence wherever you are. Even in the wilderness, you’ll probably enjoy yourself more if you can start out each morning feeling as clean and pulled together as conditions will allow.
It’s a beautiful thing to have real TP out in the wild. Tree leaves are a poor substitute. So, even if you’re backpacking, make room for a roll. Use biodegradable TP or bring odor-proof bags to carry used tissue out of the woods with you. Or carry it until you can burn it.
Even if you won’t be bathing in a secluded lake, like in a perfect movie scene, you can still grab your soap bar and a gallon of water and do as much as you can to stay clean. Car campers may have access to a shower facility. If so, be sure to take shower shoes and a container for those.
Dental Care Supplies
Bring your toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss, of course. In the wilderness, as anywhere else on earth, these most basic of daily health maintenance needs can’t be neglected.
Feminine Hygiene Products
Don’t forget these essentials, and bring odor-control baggies to carry used supplies out of the woods with you, or to carry them until you can burn them.
To survive, we humans need to drink about 2 liters of water per day or more. In hot climates and when being physically active, you may need more water. You also need water for cooking, cleaning, and grooming. This is why hydration is important while camping.
Camp near a source of drinking water. If space is an issue, collapsible water jugs may be the right fit for your needs. However, they’re less durable than hard plastic or metal containers. Bring a refillable water bottle for each person as well. For car camping with a cooler, you can freeze a few gallons of water in plastic jugs to keep food cold for a while. Then, you can use the melted ice for cooking or drinking water. Backpackers using untreated water sources need to take a camping water filter and purification tablets, or boil water for drinking and cooking. Be sure to read up about safe water purification and filtration techniques before you go camping.
Accurate meal planning is of heightened importance when you’re camping. At home, you can toss out a plan and call in delivery food. But, in the wilderness, you need to be sure you’ve brought enough with you and have the equipment in your camping kitchen. So, make a checklist for each meal of each day, and check off each food item as you pack it.
Even distance backpackers can enjoy the quality of perishable foods for the first couple of days of their journey. Having some fresh or thawing frozen vegetables and meats for your first day and evening meals is a good way to celebrate your progress. It’s also good for replenishing yourself as you expend the most energy carrying a pack that is at its heaviest during the first several days until your supplies become more depleted.
Use a small freezer pack in a small collapsible cooler. Take a plastic, waterproof bag to hang your food while you’re sleeping. Car campers can load one or more coolers with perishables and ice. Car campers, check with your campground for food storage locker resources and food-storage policies.
Think pasta, rice, dried meats, fruits and vegetables. They’re space and weight savers. They also don’t generate very strong odors when cooking, which is an important benefit in bear areas. Unless you’re car camping and have abundant room in your vehicle, or will be camped near a grocery store, bring foods that can be flattened without damaging them. For example, choose boxed or bagged foods instead of foods in cans or jars. If you’re backpacking, look into complete meal rations that are lightweight, compact and nutritious. (Tip: Try those out for taste to make sure they’re palatable to you before you rely on them in the wilderness.)
If you’re car camping, bring a grate for open-fire cooking. Or, bring a propane camping stove and as many fuel canisters as you’ll need for the number of days you’ll be using it, the size of the group you’ll be cooking for, and the kinds of foods you’ll be cooking. If you’re backpacking into one or more camp spots, you may choose to take a tiny propane burner, especially if you plan to hunt, fish, or forage for food.
Otherwise, just take a reliable firestarter. Bring camping matches that will start even in damp conditions, sealed in a waterproof container. If you’re a skilled backpacker, you may prefer a flint or magnesium firestarter. Instant butane lighters are the easiest to use but the least reliable, especially in difficult conditions where damage to their fragile flint is a risk. (Basic fire safety tip: always extinguish any campfire you start completely, ensuring the coals are separated and cold on all sides, before leaving a campsite.)
Cookware, Dishes, and Utensils
These items are available for backpackers in a handy camping mess kit. Mess kits contain a couple of camping cooking pots, a lid, plates, cups, and camping utensils, all of which fit inside a small, handy unit bound with its own buckle strap.
For car camping, bring a basket with a few pots and camping skillets, lids, plates, cups, forks, table spoons, and a camping knife set. Also make sure to bring some wax paper to create plenty of clean work surface. Bring trash bags, paper towels, and a plastic table cloth.
Heavy Duty Knife
Even if you’re not a hunter, a hunting knife with 6″ or 8″ blade is ideal for many uses in the wild. Either a sheathed or folding knife with a locking blade is recommended. For every use from turning over food cooking over a fire or in a pan, to cutting cordage, to skinning fish, or cutting vegetables, a substantial knife is an important universal tool in the outback. If you choose not to bring a knife, a camping hatchet is another valuable alternative.
Even if you’re backpacking long-distance, a cooler can be handy for many purposes. A collapsible, plastic-cloth lunchbox-sized cooler can keep your first two days perishables and beverages cold. Then, it can be used for carrying water from a creek to your boiling pot. It can be used for storage of berries and other natural foods you pick up along the way. It can serve as a food cover during meals, to protect from heat, cold, insects, etc., and for many other uses.
For car campers, of course, your first several days of food stock are kept in great condition in the best camping cooler. Then you can either switch to the non-perishables for the final days of your trip, or make a grocery shopping trip to restock your cooler. (Tip: A durable cooler also doubles as a table and/or seating inside or outside your tent.)
Camping is, by nature, a rather dirty recreational activity. Keeping a clean campsite is rightly a point of pride for experienced campers. In fact, one of the photo-worthy scenes you can admire in your chosen wilderness destination is your tidy, clean camp setup. For that, you’ll need the following.
Biodegradable Dish Soap
Spare the extra expense to get eco-friendly dish soap. It’s versatile for all sorts of cleaning purposes around camp, and it doesn’t drench the ground with the level of phosphates that are not good for insects and animals that have to live in the area. The whole ecosystem depends on the balance of life there, and while just one family camping may not seem significant, many campers over time compound environmental issues and can make a negative impact.
Pack a pot scrubber in a zip lock baggie. This tiny item is a huge labor-saver. Choose one that is porous enough that you can keep it clean. Let it dry well after each use, before putting it away in the baggie.
For car camping, ideally, bring two wash basins. Use one for washing dishes and the other for rinsing. To prevent attracting insects to the basins, wash both thoroughly after each use, and turn them over to let them dry well. Leave them upside down until the next use. Avoid cross contamination by bringing a third tub for grooming use, or forgo a basin for that purpose and just let water used for grooming run onto the ground, outside of your immediate camping area.
Paper Towels or Small Cloth Towels
On the one hand, paper towels are conveniently disposable. On the other hand, cloth towels are washable and reusable. Consider mixed fiber towels. They’re lightweight, absorbent, washable and reusable several times, and then can be thrown away.
Camping and hiking are a natural combination of wilderness activities. Whether you’re camping near the trailhead, or you’re pushing deeper into the outback with just your pack on your back for days, you need the best possible grade and configuration of hiking gear. Here are the recommended items.
Water-proof or resistance boots are ideal. Whichever brand or style you choose, make comfort the priority. Make sure its design features include a thick, lightweight sole with deep tread, a well-cushioned insole, appropriate arch support for your feet type, a snug heel, a reasonably flexible bridge (across the top of the foot), good toe room, comfortable sides and a soft buffer around the top edges of the boot. Vegan hiking boots are a great option to consider. (TIP: Take a spare pair of boot strings.)
One of the hiker’s greatest assets is a great pair of seriously well-built hiking sandals. There’s really nothing like the joy of free toes, basking in the breeze on warmer hiking days. But, these don’t come cheap. Don’t try to get by with discount store-quality hiking sandals. You’re likely to be disappointed after only the first few miles on day one, when the sides break loose or the sole breaks off. Get a pair that is constructed to bear years of extreme wear and tear of constant impact for hours on rough terrain. The right pair can last for a decade or more of steady use, so it’s an exceptional investment.
A pair of these is a game-changer for distance hikers. Bring at least a pair per day, plus at least one spare pair for the total trip. Get roomy, but not loose socks with long enough legs to reach at least several inches above your hiking boots.
Use a small day-pack for hiking from a car camping spot. Use a larger, high-quality frameless pack for backpacking into your camping spot. Minimize bulk and maximize comfort by only using a framed pack for extended wilderness hikes of more than several days. Get a pack with side pockets for a water bottle, flashlight, and anything else you want to access quickly. Have upper and lower back zipper compartments for stashing your trail map, sunglasses, camping emergency kit, or other items you want to reach without digging down into the main compartment.
Use a canteen to free up space on your backpack, or if you’re hiking a short nature trail and want to carry only water without a day pack. You can strap the canteen over your shoulder for easy carrying. Take a camping water bottle instead, if you’re carrying a day pack, to minimize the number of things you have strapped over your shoulders. Calculate the amount of water you’ll need, based on your body size, the outside temperature, and the distance you’re going to hike. Take multiple water bottles, if necessary.
Get a hiking compass with a ruler attached to it to help you easily get your bearings on the map and measure distances. Above all, get a compass that is easy to read vs. one that has a lot of bells and whistles and is more complex than you need for your purposes. Even for a simple compass, carry the directions along with you in your first aid kit.
If you’re out of cell phone tower range, it’s a great backup measure to carry one two-way radio and leave the other one of the pair with someone reliable, especially if you’re going out on your own, traversing some sketchy terrain, are unfamiliar with the area, or weather is unpredictable. Leave the radio with someone who is within the radio set’s communications range, or leave it with someone who is out of range, but who will be waiting to travel to a designated location within range to attempt to reach you and summon help, in the event that you do not check in within an agreed number of hours from the time of your expected exit from the trail.
Cell Phone with Backup Charger
Your phone is your best link to the rest of the world. Going off-grid is one thing. If the grid is available, it’s wise to stay linked into it. You can still enjoy the trail while having emergency services just three quick touches of buttons away. If you’re worried about inability to resist the urge to check your phone and wreck your commune with nature, bury it near the bottom of your pack, between soft items where it won’t get broken and does not have excessive weight bearing on it. Carry a fully charged battery-sourced charger, or, ideally, a solar charger.
For entertainment at night around the campfire or during rain-out days inside the tent, games can save the experience. But, even on perfect weather days, you may want to consider adding some recreational items to enhance the fun for kids and adults alike.
Remember to live in the moment, and make sure that not every moment is lived viewing the wondrous world of nature through the lens of your camera. You can’t do it justice with your phone’s camera anyway, or even with the best camera. However, bring your camera, of course, to capture some memories.
Consider keeping a small pair of binoculars in your glove compartment permanently. You can just stick them in your pack for a week on the trail, and you’ll already have them with you for car camping. Plus, anytime you care to pull off the road on a Sunday afternoon road trip, you can pull them out and do a little birdwatching or leaf spotting.
For car campers, biking adds a whole new level of freedom and dimension to your camping trip. If there are stable walking and biking trails and safe backroads for biking, put a sandwich and piece of fruit or some trail mix, and a bottle of water in the day pack and venture away from your camp spot. Feel the breeze on your face, and make quick distance sitting down. Get your exercise in while enjoying the thrill of having your own transportation to natural points of interest, nearby villages, river trails, and forest roads.
There’s no place more serene than the tranquil rural world for absorbing some great reading. It’s one of life’s greatest luxuries to bask in the sun and read on the beach, boat deck or river bank.
Writing Paper and Pen
Being in nature has a way of inspiring people to contemplation, elevating the mind to a higher state. This often leads to an urge to write down one’s thoughts. So, bring supplies that enable you to pour out the best of your stream of consciousness.
Bring a deck of cards as your most versatile choice of game diversion. Other great options include a tiny folding travel chess set with flat magnetic pieces. Even the pocket-sized version works great. Backgammon and other games come in the same size with the magnetic pieces. Trivia games are also good choices. Anything small is a great choice, unless you’re car camping and can fit regular home versions in boxes.
Yes, it’s a big commitment bringing your dog on a camping trip, as it’s a whole different kind of experience bringing your dog along with you. But, if you’ve never known the joy of seeing your dog camping and hiking with you, you should try it at least once. As always, the rewards far outweigh the extra bit of supplies, cleanup, and other accommodations we must make for the needs and preferences of people and pets we love to have around us. It’s a priceless opportunity to camp safely with your dog while enjoying nature together.
Though it’s placed last on this list — think safety first! Whether you make your own camping emergency kit or purchase one online, it’s important to be prepared for any accidents when you’re in the wild.
First Aid Kit
A camping first aid kit is essential when you’re out camping because of the dangers associated. Include various sizes of Band-Aids, gauze, hospital tape, tiny scissors, aspirin or other pain killers. Also include alcohol wipes, needles and a little fishing line, eyewash, digital thermometer, and tweezers. Include a small mirror, which can be used to administer first aid to yourself, and can double as a reflective signaling tool, in case of a medical emergency. Put a good pocket-sized first aid instruction handbook in your first aid kit. (Tip: Google how to signal SOS, and practice that.) Be sure to include self-adhesive mole skin for blistered heels and feet. Additionally, consider purchasing a survival kit for camping as well to ensure you can manage in the wild regardless of if you’re injured.
A flashlight is an essential when searching through packed items in the dark to find things you need or want to use, investigating noises of concern at night, finding your way in an emergency at night, or signaling for help. Flashlights range from tiny keychain-sized units that are not good for enough purposes in the wilderness to hefty utility lights with handles, too big to be the best choice for most camping.
Backpackers should consider taking a good-quality, medium-sized flashlight. It’s lightweight enough for hiking distances, doesn’t consume much pack space, but outputs plenty of light. Car campers can take a couple of larger flashlights. If you’re van camping and have plenty of room, you may prefer full-sized, 6-9 volt battery-powered models with LED bulbs made for use as camping lanterns or emergency area lighting around your campsite.
Modern technology has done wonders in creating a wide variety of emergency flares for boaters, car travelers, and now even for hunters and hikers. Look online for a type and size suitable for your purposes, whether you’re backpacking or car camping. These can significantly increase your odds of being located quicker in case of injury or other emergency in the wilderness.
Be sure to keep a pocket-sized mirror in your emergency supplies kit, for signaling help in the worst potential circumstances, such as being lost in the wilderness or falling from a trail.
Rope is another one of those items for which you’re likely to find multiple justifications for its existence on your camping trip. You never know when you may find yourself in a survival situation in which rope is the critical thing you need for… fill in the blank with any scenario you can imagine.
There’s a great cliché, something like, “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape.” Especially if you’re car camping and have room for all that campers can ideally bring, have a roll of duct tape. You’ll likely find at least one great use for it. You can use it over bandages, use it to secure splints, create slings, secure shelters in wind, repair packs, shoes, clothing, eye glasses, tools, create carrying straps for large bundles, secure bear canisters in trees, and so on. You can even create fishing line from it in a pinch.
A tarp is just a good thing to have for all sorts of possibilities. Hikers can use a tarp in lieu of a tent to create shelter if the weather turns. Especially for beach camping, a tarp is amazing to keep under your entire camp area. (Tip: Have a no-shoes policy on the tarp, and you’ll be surprised at how sand-free and comfortable your tent can be inside.)
Don’t forget to pack your prescription and nonprescription medications. Make sure you have enough for every day, plus some extras in case something gets dropped and lost. Make sure to use a waterproof container.
Last, but certainly not least, bring a bag or metal bear canister for food containment. Put all food in it, and tie it at the end of a tree branch that is well away from your camp space and high enough to be out of the reach of taller bears at all possible times, especially while you’re sleeping. Keeping food locked in a vehicle is not a safe alternative. Many cars are damaged in national parks by bears seeking food stored inside by campers.
Though not a necessity, a camping generator will enable you to stay safe while camping by giving you access to electronics like your phone or a GPS. Because these generators run on the same fuel you’ll likely have with you for your camping stove, you can use these devices to keep yourself plugged in and comfortable in the wild.
A Word About How to Be in Nature
Camping gear is expensive, but good-quality products can last for a lifetime of making great memories. Often, campers and hikers love nature, but still leave debris in camping areas and along trails. Many others buy gear that has been manufactured in less than environmentally conscious ways. Keep nature in mind when you shop for camping gear and supplies, and leave the natural area you visit the same way you found it.
Adopting this as our personal code of camping and hiking ethics, and teaching it to children, is one important way we can help preserve pristine areas for current and future generations of people and wildlife. Beyond that, for optimum relaxation, stay organized, kill your campfires when you’re done using them, and focus on fun, whether you’re RV camping, tent camping, or any other type!